We all know about the North American yam and its place on the Thanksgiving table (even if candied yams are actually made with sweet potatoes), but did you know that Australia has native varieties of the root vegetable, too? There's a long agricultural history with the plant in this country: from the Djitama (bush yam), a round root that can be found in northern parts of the country and is toxic unless cooked correctly, to the Karrbarda (long yam), which grows from a long climbing vine in rainforest areas.
One member of the Australian yam family, the yam daisy (also known as murnong) was once a major food source for native Australians and is now being reintroduced into the culinary mainstream. Could it become a breakthrough ingredient and achieve gourmet fame?
Nutty, starchy and rather potato-like, the murnong is the edible root of a yellow dandelion-type plant, naturally occurring in southern and south-eastern (cool, dry) parts of Australia.
According to historian, author and agriculturalist, Bruce Pascoe, the murnong was a common food source for Aboriginal people before European settlement, and the Indigenous population had sophisticated ways of farming this nutritious vegetable (with one settler citing “millions of murnong over the plain”).
“Australian Aborigines have been labelled as hunters and gatherers for 220 years, but pioneers and explorers saw a very different economy,” writes Pascoe. “Aborigines were growing and harvesting a huge variety of grains, tubers and fruits, as well as building large aquaculture systems."
Over the past 200 years, these yams have been decimated by invasive pasturing, particularly by grazing farm animals and hungry rabbits. Besides being palatable to sheep and cattle, the tubers have also been doomed by other obstacles: the hard hooves of livestock damaging the ground and preventing the regrowth of murnong, for instance. Currently, murnong are not classified as endangered, but they are rare. They still grow in bushland in Victoria, NSW and the ACT, and can be found by foragers with a sharp eye. If you're keen to try this tasty native food, buy seeds from specialist nurseries or online, or propagate them yourself.
Bringing murnong back to life
Since 2011, Gurandgi Munjie, a group of Aboriginal men and women, spearheaded by Pascoe, began reviving methods of traditional horticulture and reaping the native foods that followed. The project aimed not only to recover First Peoples’ traditional foods and culture, but also to become a unique food-led form of reconciliation where the work of Indigenous growers could provide healthy produce for high-end and commercial chefs and restaurants.
The group has been propagating native grains, leafy greens, fruits and herbs, but the standout crop has been the murnong. According to Pascoe, the murnong is eight times as nutritious as the standard spud and quite the superfood. The spring harvest of 2015 was their best seed harvest yet, thanks to the use of traditional methods, such as companionship planting, employing appropriate soil type and harvest rates, and allowing the plant to respond seasonally to natural Australian conditions.
Eight times as nutritious as the humble spud. See how it grows...
From paddock to plate
The revival of murnong is welcome news for many chefs highlighting native ingredients on their menus, including Ben Shewry of Melbourne restaurant Attica. “What I really long for is something solid and uniquely Australian to use in place of the potato, something hearty,” says Shewry, referring to murnong's appeal.
Known for his enthusiasm and creativity when cooking with Indigenous ingredients, Shewry is a public supporter of Pascoe’s Gurandgi Munjie project. “I’m longing for the day when we can all buy them [murnong] from Gurandgi Munjie and support Aboriginal men and women to grow the crops of their culture,” he says.
While the commercial enterprise of Australia’s murnong is still in its early stages, chefs and skilled cooks are experimenting with the small amount that is available.
The tubers can be eaten raw and have a radish-like texture with a sweet and unique coconutty and grassy flavour. Roasting or frying murnong renders the taste similar to a potato, but with a naturally saltier flavour. Traditionally, they've been cooked in fire pits.
It's not just the root that can be enjoyed – chef Shewry recommends using the leaves. They have a slightly bitter taste in salads and a red-wine vinegar dressing will nicely complement their flavour.
There are many ways this rather unattractive-looking, but incredibly versatile vegetable can be brought to the table. Until Pascoe's seeds propagate, it might be a while before we see murnongs aplenty again – but there are plenty of reasons to be excited about their eventual harvest.
Image by @little_melbourne_edible_garden via Instagram
In this episode of Shane Delia's Recipe For Life, Shane visits Bruce Pascoe to talk native ingredients and native yams. You can watch the complete episode on SBS On Demand now and get the recipes and more features from the show here.
Bring this root vegetable to life with native Australian ingredients that pack a real flavour punch. #RecipeForLife